Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Poster Boy

I was in the Salisbury Museum on Monday, to see a wonderful exhibition, British Art: Ancient Landscapes, showing artists' representations and interpretations of the prehistoric Wessex landscape. It's on until September 3rd, and I urge you to see it if you're in the area. There's everything from Turner watercolours and sketchbooks to contemporary work by the likes of Richard Long and David Inshaw. There is a particularly stunning photograph of Avebury by Bill Brandt, made in 1944, which is worth the price of admission all by itself. If you can't make it, the catalogue is superb.

In the general collection I was much taken with their collection of Shell posters from the 1930s, showing Stonehenge and other Wessex sites of interest, all well worth filling the tank of your Austin 7 to visit. So I thought I'd have a go at a poster, of sorts, with some bits and pieces from my recent Inverness trip*. I await a call from the Scottish Tourist Office (or VisitScotland, as it now appears to be called).

* Sorry if you get moiré patterns in the central panel: it's a net curtain that I've overlaid on the view of the Firth.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

RA Summer Exhibition 2017

The Golden Wasp Game #7

I've not posted about this before, but back in February I decided to submit two of my "wasp" photo-composite images to the Royal Academy Summer Open Exhibition. I'd been feeling the need for some relatively objective endorsement of this road I've been taking away from "photographer" to "artist", and in a rash moment thought: Why not go for the Big One? Today, after a three-stage judgement process, I heard that both were accepted into this year's show.

Obviously, I'm very pleased. I know the RA Summer Show has a mixed reputation, but as a showcase for work it really can't be bettered. Unless, of course, my little A3-sized works end up being hung halfway up a wall above some enormous and garish David Hockney canvas. The validation is the main thing, of course, but I'm hoping for a few sales, too, although that will truly be icing on the cake. I've declared them both to be in an edition of 50, and will be asking a very modest £75 for an unframed, signed and numbered print. I took the advice from One Who Knows that people visiting the show and looking for a takeaway are more likely to go for small, attractively-priced prints, than a wall-sized canvas in the price-bracket of a new car.

The Golden Wasp Game #3

The competition...
(See you on Varnishing Day!)

Friday, 26 May 2017

Winchester Windows

Summer arrived in a big way on Thursday; it'll be gone again by the weekend, I expect. Just for a change, I parked in my usual spot near the Hockley Viaduct, but decided to walk the couple of miles into Winchester town centre instead of heading for the hills, and spent the afternoon just wandering around. I was rather surprised to see pairs of armed police also just wandering around, cradling their Heckler & Koch carbines. However, unlike my little adventure on Tuesday, I attracted no unwanted attention. Just another idiot with a camera. Maybe the Fuji X-T1 makes me look more touristy; or maybe things are less edgy around Winchester Cathedral than they are around Downing Street...

I think I will probably never tire of shots like these (you may differ, but...). The play of light on translucent surfaces diffused, reflected, obstructed and framed by the shapes made by wear and tear and simple accident is endlessly fascinating to me. You might see metaphors for the mind and consciousness or even meta-metaphors for photography itself at work here, I suppose, but I'm happy to use the shorthand "beauty" and pursue it wherever I find it. Which, in this case, happens to be the windows of vacant shops.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

By the Way, Which One's Pink?

I had an interesting day this week. We've got roofers in (on?) at the moment, tracking down a leak and generally fixing up the roof and gutters, so after one day of banging and scraping, I thought I'd make myself scarce by going up to London for the day on Tuesday. Looking through the "what's on" listings, I saw that there is a new Pink Floyd exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which sounded intriguing, so I booked myself in for an early afternoon slot.

Like everyone but a lunatic minority, I was appalled by the news from Manchester when I woke up that morning. If you've ever dropped excited children off at their first real gig, and later hung around outside to collect them as the crowds emerge, you'll know a little of the terror and panic that will have been experienced around the Manchester Arena the night before. It really doesn't bear thinking about.

In the aftershock of an event like that, so recently following the attack on Westminster Bridge, you expect security everywhere to be tight, but especially so in the capital. Now, I'm not a complete idiot. I know that, to a certain mindset, I can look suspicious, especially if I'm doing my thing with the camera. You know: Hey, what's that scruffy guy with the beard and backpack doing, taking pictures of blank walls, windows, and doorways? So, especially in central London, I take care not to look furtive. I use the camera openly, I don't sneak around, I do my best to look like what I am: a harmless tourist in town for the day. So, I was taken by surprise when, waiting for the crossing lights to change near Westminster, a police van pulled up, two enormous uniformed officers got out, and asked me to step to one side so they could ask me a few questions, if I didn't mind. When two more rocked up from behind, followed by a second van, they had my complete attention.

Obviously, on Tuesday security was on a hair trigger. It seems someone inside one of the government buildings I had just been working – lovely stained hoardings! – had thought I looked noteworthy, but not in a good way, and within a minute I had become the focus of a co-ordinated police operation. In my younger days, we used to play silly games with the police when stopped and searched; it was a foolish and risky rite of passage that said, you've chosen to waste my time so now I'll waste yours, just to amuse my pals. But not nowadays, and certainly not on a day of such heightened tension. I am cut from the same cloth as most policemen (if not generously enough to make a complete one) so, once it became obvious I was a harmless idiot with a baffling but unthreatening urge to photograph random marks on walls, we had a nice, friendly chat while my identity and story was being checked out, and a third police van was waved away as it arrived. It turned out my main interrogator was from my home town – we get everywhere – and I found myself interrogating him about his personal repertoire of streets and pubs and schools, rather more closely than he was prepared for, which clearly amused his colleagues. Most surprising of all, though, was that one of the most bulky coppers – who can't have been older than 30 at most – was very interested to hear that the V&A was having a Pink Floyd show, and keen to see it for himself. What is the world coming to?

So, eventually, as they say, I proceeded on my way in a westerly direction, until I reached the V&A, in good time to sit in the sunshine for a while in the spacious interior courtyard, eating my lunch before heading to the Floyd exhibition. It may have been residual paranoia from my recent encounter, but I got the distinct impression people were surreptitiously checking me out, as well as various other silver-haired bohemian types draped around the place. I think they were trying to decide whether or not we were somebody, most likely minor aristocracy from the Prog Era. It's a curious phenomenon that we become more generic as we age and wear our youthful flamboyance more lightly: after all, today's David Gilmour could easily be a prosperous IT consultant who'd always wished he was David Gilmour, and collects vintage Fenders. But, in Emily Dickinson's words, nope, I'm nobody, who are you?

In the queue for the time-slot I had booked, 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, the balding and grey-haired IT consultants and guitar collectors were out in force. Hardly surprising: it would be impossible to overestimate the significance of Pink Floyd in the lives of a certain senior segment of the population. If you were intelligent, counter-cultural, and born between, say, 1946 and 1956 then you, like me, will have spent many hours listening to their albums, although "absorbing" may be a better word. A little younger, and Pink Floyd will have represented everything you affected to despise in music; a little older, and you will have thought of them (if at all) as pretentious druggie drivel.

Look, isn't that Pink?

However, my own acquaintance with the Floyd is both narrow and very deep: I can honestly say that I know Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here as intimately as I know any other works of art, from Hamlet on down. Although I have barely listened to most of the other Pink Floyd albums, if at all. But then, I could say the same about the works of Shakespeare, or Keats, or Beethoven. I would have no hesitation in ranking Dark Side of the Moon among the great cultural achievements of the 20th century, and as one of the bedrock elements in my own psyche.

Which is why, for me, the V&A show is such a waste of time and effort. It's a multi-room, multi-media extravaganza, with a clever, location-sensitive audio-guide, all of which probably seemed pretty far out in the planning, but is actually impossible to follow in dark rooms crowded with knots of relic-worshippers hunched over guitars, gizmos and documents, impossible to see in their dimly-lit glass cases. The show is also utterly meretricious in its sensibility. It reminded me of how the Floyd's journey went from the thoughtful English romanticism of Dark Side of the Moon and the jagged, self-harming nostalgia of Wish You Were Here to giant inflatable pigs in a single, ill-judged stride.

So in the end I took off my headset and made my way to the exit through the now bizarrely silent rooms full of headphone-isolated zombies. It reminded me of nothing so much as being at the Knebworth Festival in 1975, where Pink Floyd conspicuously failed to rise to the occasion, dogged by technical problems, and I ended up wandering through the crowd thinking that this whole thing – not just this gig but the whole counter-cultural idea – had all gone horribly wrong, and been transmuted into mere merchandise-shifting and show-biz, and yet nobody seemed to have realised it quite yet.

And yet, it seems, in another part of the wood they had... [cue opening bars of "God Save the Queen"].

Exit through the gift shop...

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Clava Cairns

Not far from Culloden is a remarkable place. The cairns at Balnuaran of Clava are simply one of the most evocative prehistoric sites I have ever visited. The impression is rather like walking onto the film-set for some tale of swords-and-sorcery like The Lord of the Rings. The large chambered burial cairns are almost too perfectly preserved, the standing stones surrounding each cairn uncannily picturesque, and the setting and atmosphere thick with a wary watchfulness. In this open-air cathedral to something just out of memory, thickly cushioned underfoot with moss, it almost comes as a surprise that no linen-shrouded body lies within each chamber, surrounded by rich but untouchable grave-goods. Or, less romantically, that a film-crew and actors are not taking a lunch break among the trees.

Of course, some of this is stage-setting. In the 1870s, the site's owner regarded these Bronze Age burial cairns as Druidic Temples, and enhanced the site by planting a grove of trees around it. As at Culloden, the Victorians were great interpretive "improvers" of historic sites. It's also not impossible that some of the features have been tinkered with or repurposed: they are 4,000 years old, after all. Certainly, the archaeologists regard the stone rings enclosing each tomb as a later feature, perhaps acting as an insulating, apotropaic barrier, perhaps serving some more mundane purpose. But such tombs are a feature of the Moray Firth region, and their authenticity is unquestionable; I have rarely felt the presence of the distant past so tantalisingly close at hand.

Thursday, 18 May 2017


One must-see tourist attraction near Inverness is the site where the Battle of Culloden was fought in 1746, the chaotic, brief, and bloody last gasp of the Jacobite rebellion on these islands, and epicentre of the subsequent suppression of the Highland way of life. There is an excellent visitor centre at Culloden, run by National Trust for Scotland, and we took advantage of their excellent and informative guided tour. If you're ever there I recommend you do the same, as battlefields are rarely eloquent places, and our guide's script was a well-balanced, nuanced account of the affair, taking pains to counter the over-romantic and simple-minded view of the battle as essentially a Scotland v. England match played out with swords, muskets, and artillery.

Now, I have direct Scottish ancestry on the male side traceable well back into the 18th century, and bear one of the surnames that figure in accounts of the battle and its aftermath. But, as Borderers and Edinburgh artisans, I strongly doubt that any ancestor of mine fought on the Jacobite side. In fact, the then Chisholm clan chief, although a Jacobite supporter with one son leading a smallish contingent of Highlanders, also had another two sons fighting as captains in the Duke of Cumberland's army. That's certainly one way to end up on the winning side, and he was far from alone in this canny calculation.

The "clan" thing is complicated, but essentially tribal and feudal, and most of us having a clan surname are descendants of dirt-poor tenants with no more relation to the clan aristocracy than, say, Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the US Congress. The picture at Culloden is further complicated by the distinctions between Highland and Lowland Scotland. Quite apart from the fact a great many Scots rejected the Stewart claim on the British throne, and certainly had no desire for a Catholic monarchy, it's hard to imagine the likes of David Hume or Adam Smith charging through the boggy heather waving a broadsword. We're talking about 1745, not 1545.

Although initiated by the writing of Walter Scott, it was the Victorian 19th century that saw the great revival of interest in the tartan-swathed romance of the Highlands, as safely distant in time by then as the Wild West was from Hollywood, and most of the memorialising at Culloden was done well over a hundred years after the event. Following the actual battle, most of the 2000 Jacobite casualties were stripped and tossed indiscriminately into two mass graves. The various, clan-specific memorial stones – so solemnly visited by overseas bearers of those same surnames – are a pious fantasy, erected in 1881, at the same time as the large memorial cairn. I rather liked the ones engraved with "Mixed Clans", however, which pretty much describes what lies underneath all of them.

In 1964, when I was ten and still at primary school, the BBC aired Peter Watkins' remarkable docudrama about Culloden, presented as if modern TV journalists had been documenting the battle, complete with shaky handheld footage, and interviews with participants, in the main played by non-professional actors. I was allowed by my parents to watch it, and it was very powerful, and rather shocking, especially the scenes of Cumberland's army brutally "mopping up" the Jacobite wounded with bayonet and sword after the battle. It was the first time I had been made acutely aware of our (frankly, rather spurious) "Scottishness", and for a while it became an important part of my identity, especially the heady sense of tragic destiny that it endowed.

I even wrote to the clan chief – the wonderfully named Chisholm of Chisholm, who kindly wrote back – but eventually came to a more realistic assessment of my place in the scheme of things when I discovered that very same clan chief's ancestors had forcibly evicted 10,000 of "our" clansmen from "his" land in the early 19th century Highland Clearances, in order to raise sheep. Virtually all of those Canadians, Australians, and Americans with Scottish surnames who visit Culloden and buy the appropriate tartan souvenirs in the knick-knack shops of  Inverness and Edinburgh are descended from similarly involuntary exiles, and have inherited not some precious, unbreakable bond of kinship but what is, in effect, just one step away from a slave-name. But, as I say, the clan thing is complicated, and romance will trump reality every time.

But, talking of romance, part of the bloody and vindictive aftermath of Culloden was the hunting down of Jacobite rebels and the extirpation of any remnant of Jacobite sympathy, including a ban on the wearing of Highland dress or the speaking of Gaelic. Set against the backdrop of this brutality is the story of the Seven Men of Glenmoriston, Jacobites who lived as outlaws, raiding and taking bloody vengeance on government soldiers and sympathisers, and eventually escorting the Young Pretender, a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Charlie, safely across the Highlands to his cross-dressed escape to Skye with Flora MacDonald, and thence to France, never to return. As it happens, three of the seven were named Chisholm, but don't be looking at me, your honour, do you think I can be herding all these sheep wearing a damned Highland kilt? As if! Three cheers for King George, says I, and may his flocks increase! Slàinte mhòr! Oops, sorry, I mean: Your very good health, sir!

It is a good story, though, and has the makings of a great film, a mix of Kidnapped! and the James-Younger Gang. In fact, the parallels between ex-Jacobite outlaws and ex-Confederate outlaws are quite striking, sharing as they do the story arc of violated pride, proceeding through scofflaw retribution and fast-living, to a doomed ending on the gallows, followed by the later myth-making. And if all this also prompts memories of the Skye Boat Song ("Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing..."), do bear in mind that those stirring lyrics were written by an Englishman from Hertfordshire in 1884, to a tune collected on Skye in the 1870s. It seems that not only do the victors get to write the history, they also get to make the romantic myths about the losers, once they're safely dead and buried in the past. But, as the journalist says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Sheep May Safely Graze

I have just spent a long weekend with an old friend, a sometime Glasgow GP and now Professor of Rural Medicine, who owns an improbable acreage of wooded land and pasture just west of Inverness on the Beauly Firth. Phil is a remarkable and large-spirited man, with an unfortunate taste for outdoors activities. In his fifties, for example, he ran the West Highland Way ultramarathon (that is, 95 miles from Milngavie to Fort William), not once, but twice. Now that he owns a large chunk of Highland Scotland, tree-felling, log-chopping, and sheep-raising have been added to his repertoire. Few other people that I know will have enthusiastically received a new axe for Christmas. Must be a tough one to wrap, that.

Naturally, I was drawn into this outdoorsy regime, and found myself hauling logs up a hill and chasing sheep around a field, neither of which fall within my customary definition of leisure activities, but turned out to be a lot of fun. The sheep especially: my Scottish ancestors did a lot of shepherding, and some sleeping pastoral abilities were re-awakened, as I helped Phil and Susan round up and "spot" their forty sheep and lambs with an anti-tick treatment, and held each one steady while the filthy fleece was trimmed from around their backsides. The lamb casserole we had that evening tasted particularly good, I have to say.

More about Scotland once I've recovered, not so much from my exertions as from the travelling, including a flight in an aircraft with noise and vibration levels exceeding those of an airborne MRI machine. At least I didn't have to keep completely still, though some M.R.I. Bach would have been welcome.

Your blogger in shepherding mode

Friday, 12 May 2017

Hey Presto!

As we contemplate the upcoming general election, and what appears to be its inevitable, depressing outcome, it's worth remembering an obvious statement, but one that bears repeating: people are not, never are, and cannot be entirely rational. Least of all, when it comes to voting.

When we say that someone is being or has made a decision that is "not entirely rational" – oh, let's say, just as an example, to leave the EU – this is an understatement intended to convey that, in our opinion, that person has either allowed their feelings to interfere with their judgement, or has gone rather too far along the spectrum that ends in "barking mad". It also implies that we, unlike them, occupy the rational high ground, that sunlit upland bathed in the pure light of reason. In political terms, the rationalist's argument goes like this: if only people listened to the arguments, understood them, and made rational, reasonable decisions about what courses of action are, primarily, in their own and, secondarily, in society's best interest, then they would inevitably vote the right way, that is, for us. It's the only reasonable, rational thing to do!

The only problem being that the arguments are many, confusing, and contradictory, and that there are various competing "us" factions to decide between, all of whom consider themselves to be occupying that rational high ground. Which either means it is very crowded up there, or that there is more than one high place, or, more likely, that the sunlit uplands are a delusion. So, in the end, those of us without tribal loyalties to any particular party, no great interest in "current affairs", and without any gift for sophisticated thought – that is, most of us, and certainly the ones that matter most, electorally – tend to vote for the nicest hair, the most reassuring smile, the firmest handshake, or – I suspect, most often – whichever way we sense the tribe as a whole is moving, as reported in our entertainment and news media of choice. Thus, an election can be turned by something as apparently trivial as a politician's inability to consume junk food.

Interestingly, you rarely hear any choice, political or otherwise, being criticised as "over rational" or "under emotional". Reason and reasonableness are the gold standard for civilised behaviour, the common sense of an informed, intelligent, humane person. But it's a curious word, "reason". It means rather more than, say, "a capacity for logical thought", and seems to stand in a similar relation to "logic" as "wisdom" does to "knowledge". That is, it is the fullest, most integrative, non-reductive expression of a human faculty, one able to take into account and give due proportion to those other human faculties and proclivities that will complicate even the simplest judgement. When we appeal to someone about to carry out some harmful action – voting Conservative, for example – "Please, be reasonable", we are not asking them to apply pure logic to the situation, but we are asking them to consider factors such as empathy for the feelings and situation of others, factors which would result in a more fully thought-through appreciation of the wider consequences of their act.

Consider the difference between "unreasonable" behaviour and "irrational" behaviour. It's unreasonable to throw rubbish into your neighbour's garden, or to bully your employees into voting against their own interests. It's irrational to throw your neighbour's rubbish into your own garden, or to vote to leave the EU when your depressed locality is in receipt of generous subsidies from that body. There are laws against most forms of unreasonableness, enforceable by the consensus of right-thinking citizens; there are very few, if any, laws against irrationality. Electoral irrationality is no exception. Turkeys are free to vote for Christmas, and – amazingly often – do. But why?

I think it's to do with astrology. Not in the sense that Theresa May has consulted her astrologer, and decided that, as May 2017 is the last time Saturn will trine Uranus until 2047 (which it is), this is an auspicious time for a major electoral gamble (which it may be). To the best of my knowledge, the post of Court Astrologer was abolished somewhere around 1945, and replaced with the Office for National Statistics. No, what I mean is that, in the end, pretty much every systematised understanding of the social world turns out to be no better than astrology, once it is turned to predictive ends. I think we should feel free to call out as "astrology" any set of reassuringly precise predictive protocols which is based on a profound confusion of correlation with cause, and of description with explanation.

Look no further than the inability of economists to predict the crash of 2008, so obvious and easily explained by the very same economists in retrospect. I expect the proper astrologists have a pretty convincing account, too, after the event. Let's be honest, pretty much everything – even reasonably well-understood things like tomorrows's weather or the workings of a smartphone – is far too complex for any normal person to understand. Worse, it probably involves mathematics. So, everything – everything! – has to be taken on trust, simplified, explained to us with entertaining parables and over-extended metaphors, until you end up with a murky soup of apparently conflicting explanations that actually cannot be understood, as a whole, rationally, by anyone, because they're not the actual explanations, but easily-digested substitutes.

So we who can truly understand nothing, have no obvious tribe, and have nothing to give but our trust, must be courted by astrologers and charm-artists of various stripes, who claim – with every appearance of confidence and competence – to have determined some fixed point around which patterns and predictions we can actually understand and even live by can coalesce, like a stick thrust into the whirling chaos of a candy-floss drum. Look, here is some truth I made for you! It doesn't last long, though, and do try not to get it in your hair. In other words, political charisma creates its own logic, and just as a well-executed magic trick is far more compelling than any explanation of how it is done, so a polished political performer – charlatan or saviour or tribune of the people – must excite the trust of voters, not demand or presume it, and thus motivate us to vote for them; even, it seems, when this is against our own interests. Which is a good trick. We vote irrationally, in the main, guided not by reason but by trust in someone else's congenial display of conviction. Democracy has never been a science, but seems to be becoming ever closer to some consequence-free game show.

But any political leader (yes, that includes you, Jeremy Corbyn) who, for all the right reasons, abjures charismatic astrology for sober reason, who refuses to wear the magician's hat, or to thrust their magic wand into the chaotic soup – in short, whose best hope is that the electorate are reasonable, rational people who, given the facts, can be depended on to come to the right conclusions about what is in their own and the national interest, without any demeaning hocus-pocus – is simply choosing to walk off the stage on which the ritual magic act must be performed, and – worse – expecting everyone in the audience to follow. Which is both unreasonable and irrational, but not in a good way.

NOTE: I will be in the Scottish Highlands over the weekend, and have no idea what sort of wifi or phone signal to expect. Comments, etc., may have to wait until next week.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Hinton Ampner

On one of those sultry, early May afternoons, when a storm seems imminent but never quite arrives, we drove over to Hinton Ampner, a National Trust property about 7 miles east of Winchester. It's a strange place, and one that the Trust seems to be fiddling about with constantly, so that it can seem like a stage-set at times. Which makes it a good place to wander about the grounds, casually photographing whatever happens to be lying around, on this occasion with a Ricoh GR.

The more I use it, the more I like the Ricoh GR as a carry-anywhere camera. The thing is so small and so light, you can actually forget which coat pocket it's in, not something you'd expect of an APS-C sensor camera. It seems to deliver high image quality effortlessly, and it's not surprising they're so hard to find second-hand. If you ever see one, just buy it and try it; you'll have no trouble re-selling if it's not right for you. I've completely got over the lack of a viewfinder, and the fixed 28mm-equivalent lens is a price worth paying for the overall compactness. It also gives the full depth of field that I like without having to think much about aperture (bokeh? ptah! I got hyperfocaleh!).

True, it's a wider angle of view than I would choose, and it can be frustrating see photographs that a longer lens or a zoom would suit better: the one below is an example. What I got is the top version; what I saw was the crop below, impossible to achieve with "foot zoom". Though I don't know that the full image isn't actually a better picture. It's funny: we like to think we choose our kit to suit our "vision", and I suppose the sort of photographer who carries a weighty bag of lenses everywhere may actually do so. Personally, I prefer to wander about as unencumbered as possible – a mere 245 grams, in this case – and find my vision will change, conveniently, to match whatever happens to be hanging round my neck. "Love the one you're with", I suppose.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Book Abuse

Il bibliotecario
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1566

Books, it is often said, are special. Certainly, unlike any number of other, more essential purchases, books do not attract VAT in Britain. It's interesting, though, isn't it, that it seems to be the container that is regarded as special, rather than the contents? Buy the exact same text as an e-book or an audiobook, and you immediately have the taxman's attention. It's as if potatoes sold loose in paper bags were VAT-free, but potatoes pre-packed in plastic were not (hmmm, now there's a thought...). There seems still to be a slightly romantic view that books are somehow, in and of themselves, improving, and their purchase is therefore not to be discouraged by funding schools and hospitals. Naturally, you won't hear any objection from me; I'm improving all the time.

Something of the same view lies behind the idea of a free public library: surely one of the most enlightened and enlightening ideas anybody ever had. Such an institution is the very embodiment of Enlightenment with a capital E, itself probably the best package of ideas humanity has come up with so far. Things get more complicated, however, when enlighteners need to make a living from their enlightening, and even more so when giant corporations seek to enrich themselves by making their published labours universally available. Here's an interesting, if muddled, recent article on the story behind Google's failed land-grab with Google Books. But the ins and outs and pros and cons of copyright law is one of those quasi-theological subjects best left to lawyers. You think you know what "fair use" is? Step away from the photocopier, sir.

Those of us who work professionally with books, like doctors with patients or bus-conductors with passengers, can rapidly acquire an immunity to their charm. They become mere units in various quantitative scenarios, components with an average price, size, shelf occupancy, repair-to-replacement cost, and – these days – a need to justify their acquisition and retention beyond being vaguely good for you. Their qualitative aspects are either irrelevant – a pretty book is not necessarily a good book  – or can only be judged indirectly and relatively – a good book is not necessarily a book in demand. If tutors put bad books on reading lists or the public only wants to read bonkbusters and diet books then, regrettably, that makes them good books. A library or bookshop containing only what the management personally consider the "best" books, ideally in their most lovely editions, is a fantasy. Although I wouldn't have minded working there.

It does have be said, with great sadness, that the idea of any library or bookshop is rapidly becoming a fantasy. The reasons why are complex – it's not just Amazon, Google, and the Web (a.k.a. Amazoogle), though that is certainly a factor* – but I don't want to go into that here. But I do regret the disappearance of proper independent bookshops from most towns, and above all I mourn the disappearance of the sort of cavernous emporium of wonders that is a proper second-hand bookshop. Business rates, risibly low profit margins, and a general lack of public interest have driven both from our high streets, but especially the latter. Even Thornton's in Oxford closed its doors in 2002, the very type specimen of a bookshop, mixing new and used stock in chaotic, multi-storey profusion, and where I once spent many happy hours picking over the shelves and piles and boxes for treasure, like a rubbish-tip scavenger.

They do survive, though, often in unexpected places, like rare birds hiding in plain sight on some suburban street or industrial estate. One such is Aardvark Books, a two-storey barn full of second-hand and remaindered books, tucked away in Brampton Bryan in Herefordshire. Aardvark has one of those eye-attracting signs you glimpse at the roadside, pointing down a side-street as you pass through a village on the way to somewhere else and think, "I must stop and give that a look sometime". We finally did last year, and both came away with an armful of books, a rare experience these days. I enter most bookshops, new or second-hand, with the expectation – hope, even, as I already have far too many books – of coming away empty-handed. This year, Aardvark was firmly on the rainy-day itinerary, and yet again two more armfuls of books got added to our book-heavy household.

One item in particular gave me real pleasure. A large, slim hardback book compiled by Robert Gittings, and published by Heinemann in 1970: The Odes of Keats & Their Earliest Known Manuscripts in Facsimile. This book offers a total immersion in those remarkable poems. As well as manuscript facsimiles, which are always instructive, especially in draft ("Season of mists and mellow yellowness NO!! fitful rootlessness? Ridiculous!"), you get transcriptions of the manuscripts, a truly enlightening introduction by Gittings, beautifully typeset texts of the 1820 edition of the poems, plus notes. Frankly, equipped with these 80 pages you could ace top marks in any exam on Keats. Before reading the introduction, I had no real idea of the circumstances of their composition, the importance of the spell of exceptionally good weather in April/May 1819, or of the significance of a change in the occupiers of a recently-built semi-detached house on Hampstead Heath where Keats was wont to hang out. I had also never really considered their structural similarities, or the conceptual links between the ideas explored in each. Even for eight pounds it was a bargain, a pleasure to handle and to read (what a shame no-one prints poetry in 18-point type any more), and a reminder of why books are – or at least can be – special.

Although I must admit I was disappointed to find an ink inscription on the flyleaf, as well as the usual bookshop's pencilled pricing and associated squiggles. People who like their books seem to fall into two camps on this matter. On one side, there are those (like me) who virtually never inscribe their books, whether it is a gift or a personal purchase, and will pay considerably more for a "fine, unmarked" used copy; on the other are those who love to leave their mark on a text, ranging from disfiguring dedications in ham-fisted biro ("For Sally at Xmas '63, with love from Auntie Jane XXXX") to beautifully-produced personal bookplates, sought after by collectors in their own right. Inscriptions can have importance, of course: from a rare-book collector's point-of-view, provenance is all, and an exciting inscription can trump anything, including condition. A tatty copy of Arthur Golding's 1567 translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, with sellotaped repairs and pages missing, but clumsily inscribed "From Yr. lovinge father Will Shaksper, To my sonne Hamnet this twelfe nighte anno domini 1595, XXXX" would be quite a find. So long as it's not in ham-fisted biro. With the inevitable result that faking just such inscriptions has been quite an industry, at least in the past, when collectors and libraries were more gullible and lacked forensic techniques of authentication**.

Obviously, a book belongs to its purchaser, who is free to do whatever they like or need to do with it***. We're not talking about library books here, though: inscribers and annotators of library books are criminals, on whom the full weight of the law should descend. If it pleases you to take your personal copy of the latest Lee Child onto the beach, where it can absorb sunscreen, ice cream, salt water, and sand, and to mark your place by folding down page corners or even with the legendary slice of bacon (no, really), that is your right. But, should you do the same with a Lee Child borrowed from your library (or worse, with an irreplaceable academic text) then you should expect a visit from Scotland Yard's specialist Library Retribution & Recovery Squad. But I like to think that most people realise that at least one way in which a book differs from, say, a biscuit or a banana, is that its usefulness does not cease when its current owner has consumed it. A book, like a house or a car, has an afterlife, and you might say (as with those adverts for preposterously costly watches) that you are merely looking after it for its subsequent, temporary owners.

However, I have to confess that in my time I, too, have been a book abuser. Once, in fact, I was a compulsive marginal annotator. I blame William Blake for this, whose copious and scathing annotations to Joshua Reynolds' Works are a window into his mind, and thus often quoted and reproduced, even regarded as part of his own "works". You could be forgiven, for a few adolescent years, anyway, for seeing this as permission to follow suit. However, when I had a book clear-out recently I was humbled to see the extent, ugliness and pointlessness of my own underlinings and their accompanying youthful marginalia, more often than not just "AMAZING!" or even "FAR OUT!!", but at their worst just impossibly juvenile and cringe-worthy statements of the bleedin' obvious. So much so that I couldn't bring myself to put those books back into circulation; I had obliterated their further usefulness by the imposition of my idiotic commentary. It made me wish that we had a fireplace, or perhaps an industrial shredder...

Of course, I'm only too happy to sign and inscribe any of my own books, a generous selection of which may be found here. Tell me what you want, and where you live, and I'll order a copy and scribble away, provided you refund me the cost of purchase and postage. Although I'll leave it you to find and underline the good bits.

"To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit  General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess."

* When I met up with an old friend recently at the V&A's Lockwood Kipling exhibition, she was excited to see that Kipling's publisher had been Thacker Spink, founded by her grandfather in Calcutta. "I've often wondered what they published," she mused, "I wonder how I could find out?" "Have you tried Abebooks?" I asked. "What is Abebooks?" she replied. Oh, baby, let me turn you on...

** I may have mentioned this before, but a founding text of modern historical bibliography is "An Enquiry Into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets" by John Carter and Graham Pollard (1934), which exposed the forgeries of bibliophile Thomas J. Wise, who had the brilliant idea of seeding his bibliographies with fake rarities, which he then proceeded to have manufactured and then sell at top dollar. That is, until Carter and Pollard spotted anomalies in the typefaces and papers used... "The game is afoot, Watson!"

*** Here follows an anecdote which the sensitive may find distressing, and not wish to read. You have been warned. So, whenever I hear assertions of the sort, "It's mine, I can do whatever I like with it", I am reminded of a schoolfriend who, visiting another boy, witnessed him destroying pet mice by various acts of cruelty – drowning, burning, and worse – which he found upsetting. "Oh, don't worry," said the other boy, "They only cost half a crown"...

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Frankenstein Formula

Someone asked me how many actual photographs go into a typical photo-collage, which is really one of those "how long is a piece of string?" questions (or what grammarians call "a question expecting the answer 'it depends...'"). So, it depends... But, typically, I suppose I'll use about four or five main source photos, a few handy texture photos (as you've probably noticed, I've currently got a thing about metallic gold, the mother lode being a set of flattened-out Ferrero Rocher wrappers), plus repurposed bits and pieces sawn out of other useful source images. It's one of my rules (though casual and often broken) that, as far as possible, these source images should have some kind of common denominator, for example, have come from the same session, month, or location. Why? Because constraints seem to stimulate creativity.

Perhaps the easiest way to show this is to itemise the main elements going to make up one actual Frankenstein-style composite. Generally, I start with a blank canvas, drop in a couple of photos as Photoshop layers, and see where it takes me. Obviously, I have certain intentions – for example, in this one, I was hoping somehow to use the back view of a home-made angel, seen through a church window in Llandegley – but it's very much a case of making it up as I go along. As things progress, I will often save a promising arrangement in a file, before taking the whole thing in a different direction in a new file. There might be five or more variants along the road; the main thing I have learned is to save something good before trying out a new step which might, but may well not, make it even better. The great thing about Photoshop layers is that few things need be irreversible.

Each of the constituent parts of the final picture is a perfectly satisfactory photograph in its own right (all from our recent Easter visit to Wales) but, in the end, any competent photographer could, and probably would have seen and taken them, with the possible exception of the angel, almost a ready-made "collage" in itself. But it is my contention that the composited image is not only unique, but a fuller, more considered artistic expression, for whatever that is worth. Not only is that more satisfying, for me, but it's also a hell of a lot of fun to do.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Painting Spring with Spring

I realise my photo-collage efforts leave the more photographically-inclined visitors here slightly baffled, but what I enjoy is what amounts to painting with photographic elements. For example, by combining various photographs from our Easter in Wales, I can produce pictures which say more, to me at least, about the experience of that time in that place, its feeling and meaning, than the photographs can by themselves. That wrought-iron gate at Hergest Croft, for example, somehow embodies something for me that, simply presented as itself, it fails to convey. Used as a key element in each of these four new pictures, however, with varying degrees of (un)subtlety, and varying degrees of "realism", it becomes something more than itself.

Quite what it becomes I couldn't say, but that, for me, is the whole point of developing a personal visual language: I can "say" with it the things I don't consciously, verbally, know that I know, or mean to mean, without having to relying on the accidental correspondences of photography. It's also a way of signalling than these images are not intended as a simple window onto a real world "out there", which, I'm afraid, is how most people see a straight photograph.